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Comprehensive Needs Assessment of Forensic Laboratories and Medical Examiner/Coroner Offices Points to Solutions for a System Under Stress

Download the Needs Assessment
Date Published
May 27, 2020

Foremost among the insights from a far-ranging new report to Congress on the needs of the nation’s forensic laboratories is that adoption of systems-based approaches — focused, productive collaboration and communication among forensics agencies and justice system partners — is essential to effective use of laboratory resources, services, and funding.

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ), on behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and in collaboration with other DOJ agencies, directed development of the new Needs Assessment of Forensic Laboratories and Medical Examiner/Coroner Offices (Needs Assessment), a rigorous, comprehensive review that fulfills the mandate of the Justice for All Reauthorization Act of 2016.

For all of the progress in strengthening and expanding forensic capabilities to date, and all of the expert analysis performed each day in state and local forensic facilities, the Needs Assessment makes it clear that reinforcement of agencies’ collaborative and technical capacities is essential if the forensics field is to keep up with surging contemporary crime challenges such as the opioid crisis. 

The Needs Assessment’s call for systems-based approaches to forensic work is the first of nearly fifty promising practices spotlighted in the report that are already working well in the field and can serve as blueprints for further implementation. The themes of the promising practices are:

  • Innovative mechanisms enabling better use of existing resources to increase efficiency, reduce workload, and improve case turnaround times.
  • Collaboration among agencies to encourage cost-sharing and promote systems-based approaches to inform decision-making for evidence submissions and requests for services.
  • Progress on the forensic employment pipeline by increasing students’ exposure to the practical work conducted at forensics facilities and enhancing outreach, recruitment, and retention strategies. 
  • Access to federal grant programs and other resources.

The Needs Assessment is a holistic examination of the forensic science system, from education and training of staff, to laboratory workload and resource needs, to the process of advancing a criminal case from the crime scene through the laboratory to the courtroom, to the vital need for additional focused research to keep up with mounting case demands.

One core challenge identified by the Needs Assessment is the levels of funding needed to provide the numerous types of services requested, especially for disciplines beyond DNA analysis, and to meet the evolving demands of the system. Advancements in forensic services are also tempered by the absence of a dedicated federal funding stream for forensic science research and development programs.

The Needs Assessment is designed to serve as a blueprint for state and local forensic laboratory managers, medical examiner and coroner (ME/C) offices, and policymakers at all levels of government who are seeking a reliable reference point for what resources are needed to meet the current workloads, what systemic gaps need to be addressed, and ultimately how to better serve justice. In addition to itemizing systemic needs and challenges, the Needs Assessment identifies dozens of specific programmatic and financial resources and service models to improve laboratory capabilities nationwide.

NIJ’s management of the Needs Assessment proceeds from the Institute's longstanding role as the hub for forensic science and technology research and development, as well as its support of laboratory operations and implementation of emerging technologies.

See NIJ as the Federal Hub for Forensic R&D.

Scope of Need – The Justice System’s Growing Demands on Forensic Facilities

Forensic laboratories face unprecedented challenges such as the deadly opioid crisis, while powerful laboratory technologies that help solve crimes and support victims, such as new forensic DNA analysis tools, grow more complex and costly. At the same time, the pipeline of highly trained staff needed to run forensic laboratories and ME/C offices at full strength needs particular attention. As just one example, with a need for an estimated 1,000-1,200 board-certified forensic pathologists nationwide, the existing supply is less than half of that. Staff shortages, in turn, create stressors that can affect productivity, morale, and turnover.

In aggregate, state and local forensic laboratories — in many cases known to the public as crime labs — faced a budget shortfall of $640 million in 2017, according to the report. That is the estimated amount needed to reach an optimal balance of incoming laboratory casework requests and casework performed. The widening forensic facilities’ resource gap is primarily a product of rapidly growing demand for services as well as advancements in scientific technologies that allow for more types of evidence to be analyzed  and a wider array of increasingly sensitive testing methods to be performed — not because of any broad decline in facility performance over time. This is  one of many misconceptions.  

See Common Misconceptions Regarding Forensic Laboratories.

NIJ’s direction of the forensic needs assessment is an extension of its long-standing lead role supporting advances in forensic science and operations. Many NIJ initiatives both contributed to and were shaped by the Needs Assessment to advance the forensic sciences.  

See NIJ’s Role in Advancing Forensic Science.

Needs Assessment: A Mixed-Methods Analysis Combining Data and Expert Insights

The NIJ-managed Needs Assessment cast a wide net for historical as well as contemporary forensic laboratory information and presented a mixed-methods analysis. The assessment combined information gathered from listening sessions engaging stakeholders and subject matter experts, a comprehensive literature review, and quantitative data from a variety of external sources, as well as from programs of NIJ and other offices and bureaus of DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs (OJP), including Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) forensic laboratory census surveys. One rich data source was Project FORESIGHT, a business-guided self-evaluation of forensic science laboratories that was used to assess resource allocations, efficiencies, and the value of services. The Need Assessment, a 200-page document amassing almost 400 citations, is more comprehensive and more targeted than all preceding efforts to assess forensic needs.

In keeping with its statutory mandate, the Needs Assessment examines public crime labs as well as coroners’ and ME/C offices, and its scope encompasses academic forensic programs in the context of the personnel pipeline transitioning from academia to the forensic science workforce.   

The report identified high-level needs and challenges, in addition to the promising practices noted above, for a variety of forensic lab operations. (See a complete list of high-level needs, challenges, and promising practices, summarized in the report’s Key Findings.) The study did not set out to make specific recommendations, although some of the spotlighted promising practices reflect the experience-based views of veteran experts. Rather, the findings offer a flexible framework for laboratory leaders to consider based on what has been shown to work in other jurisdictions.

Emphasis on the Need for Systems-Based Approaches

When forensics agencies and their justice system partners act as connected, communicating systems rather than isolated actors, critical efficiencies result. Forensic stakeholders reported during Needs Assessment listening sessions that coordination can be improved to enhance evidence collection and preservation, inform requests and prioritizations for testing, and provide case status updates, such as timely notice to crime labs when a case has been dismissed or has resulted in a plea bargain. “Better and normalized communication during these crucial points can avoid unnecessary testing or diversions of forensic laboratory resources,” the Needs Assessment said. 

A Nationwide Laboratory Budget Shortfall 

Answers to systemic needs and challenges will depend in part on availability of resources for state and local forensic facilities. The opioid crisis alone presents formidable resource demands. The shortfall related to the opioid crisis was $270 million in 2015, according to the Needs Assessment. That financial estimate, along with the overall estimate of a $640 million budget deficiency, was largely the product the pioneering efforts of Project FORESIGHT, housed at West Virginia University. Initially sponsored by NIJ in the 2000s, the project has worked with participating local, regional, state, and federal agencies to standardize definitions of metrics to provide a common framework to evaluate work processes. (See FTCoE Success Story, “NIJ and West Virginia University: Revolutionizing Laboratory Efficiency Assessments Through Project Foresight," March 2020). That framework links financial information from accredited public forensic laboratories to their work tasks, while extrapolating from those results to develop nationwide estimates.

The cost to forensic laboratories of addressing the opioid crisis has surged in recent years. From FY 2015-2016 to FY 2016-2017, the expenditures for analyzing drugs and other controlled substances rose by 37%, and the expenditures for toxicology analysis grew by 25%, compared with typical laboratory expense growth of 3% per year in the preceding decade, the Needs Assessment reported. Resource needs related to the sexual assault evidence backlog are another particular focus of the study.

The Forensic Technology Center of Excellence (FTCoE) and Project FORESIGHT recently collaborated to publish two articles[1] on the hidden costs of the opioid crisis and the return on investment for processing sexual assault kits.

A central finding of the Needs Assessment is a systemic need for sufficient and consistent funding, coupled with strategic planning, to process increasing amounts of forensic evidence and address fluctuations in evidence submissions. 

In calling for resources to develop and implement new forensic laboratory technologies — a critical objective in the Needs Assessment team’s view — the report acknowledged likely short-term operational costs for technology implementation, to include validation costs, that serve the greater cause of long-term gains. “Implementation of new technologies may contribute to short-term backlogs but result in longer-term efficiencies and provide results with more sensitivity and specificity,” the Needs Assessment said. Furthermore, implementation of new and emerging technologies in laboratories is critical to generating objective comparisons, providing more reliable and valuable evidence.   

Coverdell Grants: A Critical Yet Flexible Forensic Funding Source

A uniquely flexible but insufficiently funded source of forensic program support is the Paul Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Grants program, the Needs Assessment noted. Programs such as the Coverdell grants and the DNA Capacity Enhancement and Backlog Reduction program “are heavily utilized by states and units of local government, and these programs are often cited as critical and necessary to forensic laboratory, medical examiner/coroner . . . offices, and other forensic science service provider operations,” the report said.

Coverdell funds may be used to:

  1. Improve the quality and timeliness of forensic science or ME/C office services
  2. Eliminate a backlog in the analysis of forensic science evidence
  3. Train, assist, and employ forensic laboratory personnel and medicolegal death investigators as needed to eliminate an evidence backlog
  4. Address emerging forensic science issues and technology
  5. Educate and train forensic pathologists
  6. Facilitate accreditation of ME/C offices and certification of medicolegal death investigators.

The Needs Assessment noted that the  BJS Census of Publicly Funded Forensic Crime Laboratories series reported that 77% of those laboratories benefited from grants in 2014 (including from federal, state, and other sources), up 8% from 2009 levels. Dedicated funding for DNA analysis has remained steady in recent years, but other forensic disciplines lack dedicated funding sources. The Coverdell grant program can help relieve evidence backlogs in any area — not just DNA — and can support a wide range of other operational needs, but Coverdell itself has faced a federal resource shortfall: For FY 2017, Coverdell awards totaled $10.6 million, compared with $67.7 million in funds dedicated for DNA testing awarded that year. Coverdell grants are cited by the forensic science community as a critical funding source for forensic programming, due to their broad allowable uses of funding. 

In addition to formula awards, which comprise 85% of the total available funding each year, the Coverdell program receives about 100 grant applications annually for the limited 15% allotment of competitive funds for this opportunity, per statutory allocations. However,  only 10%-30% of these proposals can typically be funded. Only 26 competitive awards were made in FY2019 with the available competitive funding allocation of $4.1 million. Total operating budgets leave state and local laboratories short of sufficient levels. “State and local laboratories still consistently express that the total funding levels are insufficient to meet their needs, including the need to process extensive backlogs of non-DNA evidence,” the report said.

A Deep, Collaborative Dive

Analyzing the forensic system as a whole, the Needs Assessment delved deeply into the education and training of laboratory personnel; workload and infrastructure needs; what it takes to bring cases to trial; the volume and variety of forensic evidence; how the field adapts to advancements in technology; and the needs of the justice system, with emphasis on the sexual assault evidence backlog and the opioid crisis.

NIJ has worked closely with BJS, a fellow DOJ Office of Justice Programs agency, in developing essential study data. BJS has conducted census surveys of forensic laboratories since 1999. The next census is set to be fielded in 2020, with NIJ supporting BJS in developing the survey tool.

The BJS census surveys have yielded essential insights on the qualifications and composition of forensic laboratory staff, with a recent focus on progress toward certification of professional staff. The most recent, 2014 census revealed, among other things, that:

  • Laboratories in the United States employed 14,300 full-time-equivalent employees (FTEs) in 2014, including 12,200 FTEs employed by state, county, or municipal laboratories. That amounts to an increase of 1,400 FTEs since 2009 at the state and local levels.
  • Eighty-eight percent of the nation’s 409 publicly funded forensic laboratories were accredited as of 2014, compared with 82% in 2009 and 70% in 2002. Nearly all (99%) state-based laboratories were accredited in 2014.
  • The percentage of crime laboratories with one or more externally certified analysts rose from 60% in 2009 to 72% in 2014.

Primary barriers to personnel certification were found to be the lack of funding and the inability to shift laboratory staff off casework for certification preparation.

Personnel Pipeline Needs for Forensic Laboratories  

Recruitment and retention of qualified staff is a first-order challenge for forensic laboratories. Among the impediments in the personnel pipeline, the Needs Assessment said, are time lags caused by the need to train new science staff in existing forensic laboratory techniques; the need for resources to maintain the required levels of training and continuing education, and especially to maintain certifications; and background investigation requirements that may dramatically reduce the pool of qualified candidates due to applicants with a minor criminal history or past drug use. 

The assessment found that the personnel challenges are exacerbated by competition with higher private-sector salaries, particularly in the areas of forensic pathology and digital analysis, and by the large student loan debts that forensic pathologists carry from medical school. Loss of employees to other laboratories or even movement internally to different operation areas necessitates resource-intensive retraining.  

The workforce evaluation piece of the study ventured beyond laboratory walls to identify the array of available forensic science academic programs, recognizing that qualified candidates should possess character and work traits and knowledge that fit the role of a forensic scientist in the laboratory. A forensic education working group established in 2004 by NIJ had identified the following recommended qualities of candidates entering forensic work: 

  • Personal integrity.
  • A minimum of a bachelor’s degree in the natural or forensic sciences.
  • Additional knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) as an aid to employment.

This NIJ Technical Working Group on Education and Training established the first set of guidelines for academic forensic programs, which in turn informed program accreditation standards set by the Forensic Science Educational Program Accreditation Commission (FEPAC). FEPAC subsequently accredited 47 bachelor's and graduate degree programs. But accreditation is not universal across forensic academia. And the Needs Assessment recognized that many entry-level positions, particularly in rural areas, may be filled by staff with an associate (two-year) degree as a minimum qualification.

To help reset the forensic science education-to-workforce pipeline, numerous forensic science experts who took part in listening sessions as part of the Needs Assessment urged “continued engagement and discussions between forensic academic program representatives and forensic laboratory leadership (including laboratory directors, human resource personnel, and representatives from the parent agency),” the report said.

Drug Overdoses Drive Up Demand on Forensic Laboratory Capacity  

One focus area of the Needs Assessment was the devastating impact of the opioid crisis: 70,237 drug overdose deaths were reported for 2017 by the CDC, the report said, roughly three times the rate of drug overdose deaths in 1999. “Due to the opioid crisis and the emergence of fentanyl and other drug threats from novel psychoactive substances (NPS), forensic laboratories have seen tremendous increases in workloads, and ME/Cs’ autopsy totals are threatening loss of accreditation,” the Needs Assessment authors reported. “The chemical structures of NPS are similar in structure to known controlled substances and are being designed to stay ahead of federal and international laws that restrict the distribution and sale of specific chemicals.”

The report noted that variants in chemical structures of new synthetic drugs often enable them to avoid detection by conventional drug identification tools. (Those variants can also keep them off illegal drug lists.) The overwhelming influx of synthetic drugs has underscored an urgent need for wider laboratory use of more sensitive detection technologies. The opioids and drugs section of the report urged forensic laboratories to consider engaging the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Synthetic Opioids Real-Time Communication Network. The network “connects forensic chemists, toxicologists, coroners, medical examiners, and other stakeholders to address the analytical challenges associated with emerging and novel synthetic opioids,” the report noted. The DEA network recommendation is one of nearly 50 promising practices developed by the Needs Assessment team for the report — detailed descriptions of specific existing programmatic models for forensic laboratories, or lifelines of research or practice support.     

The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), a primary conduit for federal opioid program funding under the Comprehensive Opioid Abuse Program (expanded to the Comprehensive Opioid, Stimulant, and Substance Abuse Program in 2020), has made new opioid-related funds available to crime laboratories as well as ME/C offices. A core element of this BJA program is an effort to help coroners and medical examiners gain access to state prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs), which include registries of individual prescription drug histories containing information that could help guide toxicology testing decisions and pinpoint the cause of death in suspected drug overdose cases.

Sexual Assault Kits Not Submitted or Tested

Along with the opioid crisis, untested sexual assault kits (SAKs) account for the largest share of forensic laboratories’ budget gap, the report said. A SAK contains physical evidence gathered from a sexual assault victim by a medical professional. The national SAK backlog falls into two categories: (1) SAKs that have not been submitted to forensic facilities for testing, and (2) those that have been submitted but not yet tested. Thousands of unsubmitted kits are in law enforcement custody around the country, but there is no reliable estimate of the national total, the report said. DOJ is working to address that need through funding resources such as the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence-Inventory, Tracking, and Reporting (SAFE-ITR) program and Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI). The report identifies promising practices, including adoption of recommendations in the NIJ report National Best Practices for Sexual Assault Kits: A Multidisciplinary Approach, to support sexual assault casework and the SAK testing demands.

Standardization of kit contents and terminology can improve SAK processing. The report favorably cited a program of the Virginia Department of Forensic Science that distributes identical SAKs to all agencies in the state, with all agencies trained in evidence collection methods for those kits. “This effort yields consistency in collection and processing,” the report said. 

The opioid crisis and sexual assault casework challenges are two of six special topics of interest in the report, the others being: digital and multimedia evidence; forensics for tribal communities; human factors; and mass disaster and critical incident preparedness and response.

Health and Wellness Issues Found To Be Largely Overlooked

Another point of emphasis in the Needs Assessment is the importance of supporting the health and wellness of laboratory staff, who typically work in demanding, stressful environments. The report noted that although traditional first responders’ exposure to trauma and its effects are widely recognized, the significant trauma exposure of forensic professionals is just beginning to be acknowledged. The Needs Assessment noted:

The forensic science workforce routinely operates in a high stress occupational environment, and disciplines such as crime scene unit personnel, forensic nurses, MDI [medicolegal death investigation] professionals, laboratory analysts, and digital examiners also have significant exposure to trauma. Forensic science practitioners and death investigators respond to violent crime and death scenes, including homicides, sexual assaults, child and infant fatalities, and line-of-duty deaths. The workforce faces large workloads, persistent backlogs, and the mandate that quality results be provided in a timely manner while maintaining scientific rigor.

The forensic science community voiced the need to provide and promote tools and resources to address and manage these occupational stressors. NIJ’s FY 2019 safety, health, and wellness solicitation set aside resources to support new approaches to helping the forensic science workforce in this area. Two of the awards conferred under this solicitation represent key contributions in this area. 

The first, Understanding Work-Related Stress Among Medicolegal Death Investigators: A National Survey and Mixed-Methods Impact Study, was awarded to RTI International, which will partner with the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators.

The goal of this project is to inform interventions and preventative training for medicolegal death investigators to reduce and alleviate work-related stressors, and to improve organizational outcomes (e.g., turnover, job performance) and personal well-being.

The second, A Study of Trauma and Resiliency Among Forensic Examiners Investigating Child Pornography, was awarded to the University of New Hampshire, which will partner with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force Training and Technical Assistance Program.

The goal of this project is to inform criminal justice efforts to advance resiliency and promote wellness for forensic examiners whose job is to search for and classify large quantities of child pornography images stored on digital media.

Past Studies Inform the Needs Assessment

The new study built upon a 2004 NIJ effort to create a roadmap for academic forensic programs to meet the needs of their communities. The 2004 study, in turn, built upon a 1999 NIJ study addressing concern in the forensic community, urgent even two decades ago, that unmet training and education needs in the field were “immense.”

Whereas the 2004 study was a relatively straightforward report, relying in large measure on the insights of assembled experts, the new congressionally-mandated Needs Assessment drilled down much further, tapping authoritative studies and datasets from all pertinent areas, as well as in-depth listening sessions with experts.

In addition to the 2004 technical working group study and Project FORESIGHT data, previous major studies that were foundational to the Needs Assessment include:

NIJ Operational Guidance and Funding Opportunities

NIJ’s Forensic Laboratory Needs Technology Working Group (FLN-TWG), described below  with other NIJ initiatives under “NIJ’s Role in Advancing Forensic Science,” works to ensure that forensic laboratory resources are directed appropriately to meet growing demand for services. Supported by the FTCoE and growing out of the Needs Assessment, FLN-TWG was formed in 2018 to enhance federal coordination with state and local forensic science laboratories. The group is composed of laboratory directors from around the country, as well as leaders in forensic science research.

The DOJ views FLN-TWG as a lead vehicle for taking innovative forensic laboratory concepts from the research stage to the implementation stage, said Jonathan McGrath, senior policy analyst in the NIJ Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences, who managed the needs assessment and advises on NIJ’s forensic science programming. FLN-TWG work already in progress relates to the implementation of 3D optical topography — new technology to advance the field of firearms examinations by providing objective comparisons and increasing the value and reliability of the data. According to NIJ’s McGrath, advances growing out of FLN-TWG are designed to help transform the field. “The FLN-TWG model ensures the forensic research is responsive to the needs of law enforcement and public safety,” McGrath said. “These efforts will support the transition and adoption of forensic technology innovations to increase efficiencies and advance systems-based strategies.”

Conclusion

The unifying theme of the Needs Assessment is the need for systems-based approaches, where the forensic community engages in a united and informed process, optimizing the level of service delivery and case processing. The Needs Assessment not only identifies the needs and associated challenges of the forensic science community, but also highlights promising practices to provide models for agencies and jurisdictions to adapt in their operations. The forensic science community has shown itself to be adaptable and resilient, improving service quality and service delivery and continuing to demonstrate its commitment to advancing justice. The Needs Assessment Report to Congress identifies the tools, resources, and data needed to keep forensic laboratories, as well as ME/C offices, on the path to progress. 

Sidebar: NIJ as the Federal Hub for Forensic R&D

As the hub for forensic science and technology research and development, NIJ’s role has encompassed:

  • Development of evaluation methods and metrics informing the Needs Assessment.
  • Development of other leading programmatic initiatives in the field, such as the NIJ Forensic Technology Center of Excellence to foster the implementation of new technologies.
  • Funding and management of cutting-edge academic research and federal partnerships for forensic sciences.
  • Funding and management of new technology development for forensic operations.
  • Support of academic programs training students for forensic laboratory positions.
  • Close collaboration with other agencies and entities to advance forensic science and operations.

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Sidebar: Common Misconceptions Regarding Forensic Laboratories

Reality:

  • Backlogs are not necessarily an indicator of a laboratory’s performance. and may be the direct result of an increasing demand for forensic services. A laboratory can be efficient and effective but still have a growing backlog due to limited capacity or due to implementation of new technologies meant to increase efficiencies or testing intensity and sensitivity.
  • Analyses of laboratory DNA caseloads and efficiencies demonstrate that a 1% reduction in turnaround time leads to a 1.29% increase in cases submitted to the laboratory for analysis the following year. That is, backlogs tend to increase as laboratories become more successful. What laboratories gain through increased efficiencies is more than offset by increases in casework requests.

Reality:

  • Of those who apply to forensic job openings, many cannot pass a basic background check due to past drug use or a minor criminal history.
  • When qualified candidates are identified and hired, it may take months or years to get them ready for casework due to training requirements.
  • Maintaining a corps of qualified examiners is a challenge because training, whether in-house or out-sourced, is expensive and often lengthy.
  • Higher salaries in the private sector, coupled with burdensome student loan debt (particularly in the areas of forensic pathology and digital analysis), can stifle recruitment and retention efforts and may deter qualified candidates from seeking employment in public service.
  • While academic programs push to produce well-rounded scientists who can think critically and work in a variety of scientific disciplines and environments, laboratories ultimately need scientists who can perform the day-to-day casework and meet mission needs.

Reality:

  • The emergence of new drugs and drug mixtures may require research and implementation of new laboratory methods and testing protocols, and well as advanced technologies, new equipment, and corresponding training.
  • The opioid crisis has demonstrated that public safety and public health entities must collaborate by sharing data and information to understand the common operating picture for drug threats. When drug chemists, toxicologists, medical examiners, and coroners share data, the forensic science community can identify drug trends and support federal, state, and local efforts to defend against emerging drug threats.
  • The opioid crisis underscores the national shortage of trained, board-certified forensic pathologists and other resources needed to ensure the quality and consistency of medicolegal death investigation services.

Reality:

  • An analysis of the societal impact of DNA databases has demonstrated that a return on investment for testing all SAKs can be seen at the national level: Adding one DNA profile leads to social welfare savings as high as $20,000. Further research demonstrates that among various crimes, the deterrence effect — and thus the subsequent societal savings — is highest with violent crimes. Researchers expanded the analysis of the benefits of adding DNA profiles to DNA databases with a concentration on the testing of SAKs and estimated societal gains in excess of $130,000 per SAK tested. When compared to the average testing cost per SAK, DNA analysis yields an 80-fold return on investment.
  • As laboratories’ capacity for processing SAKs increases, so does the need to investigate and prosecute the sexual assault investigative leads (i.e., hits from DNA databases such as Combined DNA Index System [CODIS]) that result from testing SAK evidence.

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Sidebar: NIJ’s Role in Advancing Forensic Science

NIJ’s direction of the forensic needs assessment is an extension of its long-standing lead role supporting advances in forensic science and operations. NIJ initiatives that both contributed to and were shaped by the Needs Assessment to advance the forensic sciences include:

  • The Forensic Laboratory Needs Technology Working Group (FLN-TWG) (established in 2018) — Provides objective knowledge, data, and information to inform NIJ decision-making on the needs of federal, state, local, and tribal practitioners related to forensic technology.

    The FLN-TWG was formed to: (1) identify forensic technology research needs; (2) inform NIJ’s research agenda; (3) identify needed new or improved technologies and practices; (4) disseminate information on promising developments; and (5) advance implementation of research, practices, and technologies. A new channel to enhance forensics, the FLN-TWG was established to respond to the technology challenges identified through the Needs Assessment. Read the 2020 meeting report.
  • Workforce Calculator (initiated in 2019) — A tool enabling laboratories to evaluate production allocations for personnel and capital expenditures. The workforce calculator will help laboratories prepare for sudden shifts in the volume and types of laboratory work requests by identifying the number of personnel required to support a given level of casework within each discipline.
  • NIJ’s Forensic Technology Center of Excellence (FTCoE) —The FTCoE offers extensive resources to practitioners and supports the development and implementation of new forensic technology and best practices by end users. The Needs Assessment team engaged extensively with the FTCoE to identify promising practices and formulate new initiatives to support NIJ’s work in addressing the needs.
    As one example of these initiatives, in 2019 the FTCoE produced the report “Beyond DNA in Sexual Assault Investigations,” establishing that non-DNA physical evidence often plays key roles in sexual assault investigations where DNA evidence is not present, or not in sufficient quality to be probative, or where sexual contact is not disputed. NIJ and the FTCoE also hosted the National Opioid and Emerging Drug Threats Policy and Practice Forum in 2019. The forum focused on strengthening forensic response and enhancing strategies to improve public safety and public health collaborations in light of increased forensic caseloads and more challenging drug, toxicology, and death investigation casework.
  • ASCLD Accreditation Toolkit (2019) — NIJ’s FTCoE is partnering with the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD) to enhance and expand a toolkit for forensic laboratory managers to assist laboratories with achieving accreditation.
  • NIJ Forensic Intelligence Model — NIJ is developing a framework to help law enforcement integrate crime laboratory data into the criminal intelligence and analysis process, with the ultimate goal of reducing and preventing crime.
  • Medicolegal Death Investigation (MDI) — In 2017, NIJ founded the Strengthening the Medical Examiner–Coroner System program, a funding resource aiding forensic pathology fellowships and accreditation programming. NIJ also established a federal interagency MDI working group in 2018, co-chaired with representatives from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and its Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and published an MDI Resources webpage to consolidate information on federal activities and resources for MDI.

Other NIJ areas of impact include: NIJ’s DNA Laboratory Process Efficiency Improvement Working Group; the Forensic Laboratory Management Leadership Series, under the FTCoE in partnership with ASCLD; and two awards under a new forensic topic in NIJ’s fiscal year (FY) 2019 grant solicitation for Research and Evaluation in Safety, Health, and Wellness in the Criminal Justice System focused on advancing the resiliency of the forensic science workforce.

NIJ’s current work to advance forensics knowledge and operations on multiple fronts is vital to efforts to keep up with the mounting, complex demands on forensic facilities, according to NIJ Director David B. Muhlhausen. “The more NIJ can invest in forensics now, the better off the criminal justice system will be in the future,” Muhlhausen said.

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SIDEBAR: Key Findings:  Needs, Challenges, and Promising Practices

Key Findings from the report are sorted into Needs, Challenges, and Promising Practices. They appear in abbreviated form below:

  • Communications – Institutionalization of systems-based communications between forensic science service providers, their customers, and other stakeholders to manage expectations, track the status of cases, and promote other types of collaboration.
  • Capacity to process forensic evidence – Sufficient and consistent funding and planning to process increasing amounts of evidence and address fluctuations in evidence submissions.
  • Impact of the opioid crisis – Sufficient and consistent funding and strategic planning to address the crisis’s impact on forensic laboratories. 
  • Medical examiner workforce and workload – Sufficient and consistent funding.
  • Lab employee training – Sufficient and consistent funding.
  • Improvement of the forensic laboratory personnel pipeline through hiring and training – Emphasis on areas with critical shortages.
  • Increased supply of graduates from academic Programs feeding forensic laboratories – programming to bridge the knowledge gap between academic learning and practical skills.
  • Strengthened quality assurance measures –Support for accreditation efforts and dedicated quality management personnel.
  • Maintaining a resilient workforce – Programs to address stress and vicarious trauma in the forensic work environment.

  • Collaboration and communications impairment – Better coordination is needed to enhance evidence collection and preservation; facilitate requests for testing; and ensure adequate communications on subpoenas to testify in cases later dismissed or resolved via plea bargains.
  • Increased workloads – Current data reflect a need to address backlogs in digital and multimedia evidence, drugs and controlled substances, and toxicology and increasing workloads for medico-legal death investigations and forensic autopsies.
  • Physical and technology infrastructure deficiencies – Resources are needed to bring facilities up to date.
  • Recruitment, hiring and training needs – These challenges are often in competition with law enforcement personnel needs, and are exacerbated by background investigations and security clearance requirements.
  • Shortfall of training funding – Training funds typically account for only 0.5% of total laboratory budgets.
  • In the medical examiner and coroner systems, workload issues compound the difficulty of conducting death investigations across jurisdictions.
  • Dedicated federal funding is not available for forensic disciplines practiced at forensic laboratories and medical examiner and coroner offices – DNA analysis funding is an exception.
  • There is a lack of dedicated funding for forensic science research, development, and evaluations.
  • Stressful work environments take a toll on the forensic workforce, yet few support tools are developed specifically for forensic scientists, in contrast to law enforcement and other public service sectors.

  • Systems-based approaches to making informed decisions regarding forensic evidence submissions and requests for analysis.
  • Implementation of innovative mechanisms to better utilize current resources to increase efficiency, reduce workloads, and improve turnaround times. Collaborative efforts to encourage cost sharing and help promote a systems-based approach.
  • Enhancing the forensic employment pipeline by increasing exposure to practical experiences, and expanding outreach, recruitment, and retention strategies.
  • Federal grant programs and resources to address various needs and challenges in the forensic sciences:
    • Organizations can use various DOJ resources and funding opportunities, including those of NIJ and BJA, to successfully address laboratory efficiency and capacity challenges as well as multidisciplinary and systems-based approaches.
    • Agencies can use the Paul Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Grants program to purchase new technologies and equipment, address personnel, accreditation, education, certification and training needs, and address challenges posed by the opioid crisis.
    • Agencies can use DOJ resources to invest in infrastructure development and facility renovations, new technologies, and equipment.
    • There are a variety of training programs available through federal partnerships, as well as continuing education opportunities through symposia, workshops, special events, and webinars, such as those offered by NIJ’s Forensic Technology Center of Excellence.

Return to text.

National Institute of Justice, "Comprehensive Needs Assessment of Forensic Laboratories and Medical Examiner/Coroner Offices Points to Solutions for a System Under Stress," May 27, 2020, nij.ojp.gov:
https://nij.ojp.gov/topics/articles/comprehensive-needs-assessment-forensic-laboratories-and-medical-examinercoroner
Date Created: May 14, 2020